boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Richard Clarke chat transcript

Richard Clarke, former anti-terror official and the author of "Breakpoint," a novel about fictional terrorist attacks that strike Boston in 2012, stopped by Thursday morning to chat with Boston.com readers.

Richard_Clarke: Hi, I'm Richard Clarke chatting for the next hour on my new novel, BREAKPOINT, a thriller set in Boston in 2012 and addressing the political and other effects of emerging technology ...and on the wisdom of advertising with what look like bombs...on the President's surge in Iraq...or what its like to be a Red Sox fan in Washington. Looking forward to hearing from you.


Monte_Fletcher:  Since 9/11 there have been no terrorist attacks on the US soil. There have been some groups that were allegedly terrorist groups that were broken up but when the facts come out they seem far from capable of carrying out a threat. Do you believe there are "sleeper cells" in the USA. If so, since committing a terrorist act is so easy to do and hard to prevent, why are they so sound asleep?

Richard_Clarke: The FBI says here are no sleeper cells in the US, but by definition sleeper cells are things the FBI doesn't know about.

Richard_Clarke: I think there is no organized indigenous group in the US planning attacks, as there are in European countries. The invasion of Afghanistan shattered al Qaeda, but they are reorganizing and they have a 100 year view.

P-Dawg:  Mr. Clarke, what do you say to people who defend the war in Iraq based on the notion that, if we don't fight the terrorists there, we'll be fighting them in the US?

Richard_Clarke: I say take a class in logic. There's nothing about our being in Iraq that stops a terrorist from coming here. Indeed the US Army found documents in Iraq of al Qaeda of Iraq planning to send people here.

Julio:  Mr. Clarke, yet another terrorist plot was uncovered in Britain yesterday. Is it only a matter of time before we get struck again?

Richard_Clarke: There is nothing inevitable about it, but I think the chances are high. Many people in Iraq want revenge. Al Qaeda in Pakistan is growing in strength. Europeans are in al Qaeda and they need no visa to come here. More worrying, we have done little to strengthen security at chemical plants, subways, etc.

AgainstScorpionPoint:  How close to real world scenarios are the plots from Scorpion's Gate and Breakpoint?

Richard_Clarke: In both The Scorpion's Gate and Breakpoint I try to use as much reality as possible. The scenarios could happen. The technology in BREAKPOINT is coming, whether by 2012 or not we can debate.

Thom:  Hi Richard, loved your first book. What do you think of the chaos that happened in Boston yesterday?

Richard_Clarke: It looks like an over reaction in retrospect, but having been in that kind of position before its usually better to react than not. If you don't react and you are wrong the results are much worse than if you react and are wrong.

Nicodemus:  City officials here yesterday said the operations to detonate the advertising campaign's devices and keep the peace cost $500,000 or more. Was that money well spent, and were you impressed with yesterday's reaction?

Richard_Clarke: Actually, I thought that the Boston reaction showed a pretty well coordinated and sophisticated capability that many metro areas lack.

P-Dawg:  Supporters of the Bush Administration say that the President has been a "victim of his own success>' Because there have been no more terrorist attacks since 9/11, they say, people have lost their sense of urgency about the war on terror and that's why they're turning on the President.

Richard_Clarke: I don't know of any real success that the President has had. People are turning on him because he is mindlessly getting people killed in Iraq, there was no reason to go into Iraq in the first place, and he can't admit his error and stop the carnage. He's forcing the next president to clean up his mistake...knowing that the clean up will be messy. Not exactly a profile in courage.

AgainstScorpionPoint:  Mr. Clark if a Democrat were to win in '08 would you accept a post as Defense Secretary if it were offered to you?

Richard_Clarke: I did national security in the government for 30 years. That's enough for me. I think everyone should have two or three careers and I am only starting on my second. No going back.

suburbanite:  I wonder what paralyzes the thought process of neo-cons and the White House, do you think it's more arrogance or stupidity, or a combination of the two, or something more related to protection of oil interests in the middle east?

Richard_Clarke: Oil played a part in it, but mostly it was arrogance, "the World's Only Remaining Superpower has a window in which to fix the world..."

Sean:  Has the Bush administration made the world more dangerous for terrorism? And who in '08 is the right choice to make the US a more secure place?

Richard_Clarke: Bush has strengthened terrorists by the Iraq occupation, which motivates people in and out of Iraq to become terrorists, gives them a place to try their skills, and makes it difficult for moderate Arabs to work with us. Iraq has also had an opportunity cost for us, diverting attention and resources from going after the real al Qaeda and improving homeland security.

Biff:  Why did you help cover up the fact that the TWA flight was blown up by a shoulder fired missile over Long Island, and not a result of malfunction?

Richard_Clarke: Why did you cover up the landing of flying saucers in Brookline?

P-Dawg:  What do you think about Cheney's reported "One Percent Doctrine" that we need to treat a 1% chance of terrorist attack as though it were a certainty? How does that serve or defeat US interests in the world, particularly in the war on terror?

Richard_Clarke: The one per cent solution means that if there is a one percent chance something will be a threat you go after it. Well, if you really took that attitude you would be bopping a lot of innocent people...which would make you more enemies.

GuerillaMark:  What authors do you enjoy reading and who do you think has had the greatest impact on your writing style?

Richard_Clarke: In thriller or espionage fiction I like W.T. Tyler and Alan Furst. Tyler did Cold War stuff like Last Train from Berlin, The Man who Lost the War, Ants of God. Furst does 19302-1940s European scenes, very dark.

P-Dawg:  The Bush Administration says it HAS strengthened homeland security, and points to legislation last year tightening port security. Are they blowing smoke?

Richard_Clarke: They are. They oppose the 100 per cent screening of container shipping. They have done little or nothing about chemical plant and chemical rail car security, securing radiological material, protecting subways, etc, etc.

John:  After Al Queda and other Islamic extremists who should we be looking at as a possible enemy or advisory?

Richard_Clarke: You can't know what terrorist group might emerge. We had never heard of Aum Shanrikio when they hit the Tokyo subway with nerve gas. That's why you reduce the vulnerabilities of subways and other targets...while at the same time going after the terrorist groups that you do know about. Defense, as well as offense.

Biff:  why do you think Sandy Berger pilfered those top secret documents that allegedly showed that both you and President Clinton were aware of a plot to use airliners as bombs well before 9-11 and did nothing?

Richard_Clarke: Biff, there are people who can help you overcome this tendency to conspiracy theories.

bigboymikey:  what should i NOT be scared of?

Richard_Clarke: Living in the US. The fact that there are risks which we could be doing a better job of addressing should not lead anyone in the US to live in fear. Terrorists want us to live in fear, but compared to other societies like Iraq, Israel, palestine, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and others where people do live in fear and with good reason...the US is safe and you have a greater chance of being hurt by a Boston driver than by terrorists.

JDM806:  In my mind, there must have been significant influence on this president to become the police chief of the world, a direct contradiction to his 2000 campaign message against the U.S. playing such a role. Is it really the vice president that made this mess? Dorchester is proud of you, Mr. Clarke!

Richard_Clarke: Thanx. I loved growing up in Dorchester. Cheney is a big influence, but less now than he was in 2001-4. Even Bush is figuring out that Cheney got him in a mess and he has been consistently wrong.

Papa_Bear:  You've said that Bush was trying to blame Saddam Hussein for 9/11 as soon as September 12th, 2001. Did the white house consider going to war with Iraq even before Afghanistan?

Richard_Clarke: Yes. The debate on Wednesday thru Saturday of that week of 9-11 was whether to do Iraq first or simultaneously or to sequence them by starting with Afghanistan. Remember, they wanted to to Iraq before 9-11, hell even before they got elected.

Easy_Ed:  What about cybersecurity -- are there ways to balance the need to keep data "locked down" and not change the way people try to work?

Richard_Clarke: Sure. Easy, seamless encryption. Digital Rights Management. User based access to files, with two factor authentication. Its not as hard as it sounds and is not really a burden to the user.

John:  When Breakpoint comes out where can we get an autographed copy?

Richard_Clarke: BREAKPOINT is on sale now. I may do a book signing in Cambridge in two weeks or so.

AgainstScorpionPoint:  How far fetched does this sound: Suppose Osama Bin Laden walks into a police station in NY and gives himself up. He apologizes and states that he has determined that the attacks on 9/11/01 were sinful and he was wrong. Stranger things have happened. How would we deal with the fallout? Could we guarantee his safety? Would there be a trial in NY or outside of the country?

Richard_Clarke: Ain't gonna happen. I suspect that the Administration does not really want him dead or alive...i think they want hidden ad so the avoid the circus that a trial would be

Ace:  Regarding Iraq, is Bush more concerned about his legacy as president than he is with actually doing what is right for the United States at this point?

Richard_Clarke: Yes he is more concerned about his legacy. When the Iraq adventure collapses during the next president's watch, Bush will blame it on the next president and say if he had still been in office it would have worked. That's why he can't do a withdrawal now.

GuerillaMark:  How do you think we can improve or repair relations with Arab moderates? Isn't this at least as important as going after Islamist terrorists? As an example, our heavy handedness in the Dubai ports issue has hurt our credibility I think in developing business ties

Richard_Clarke: Right. The Arab moderates are the people who can best prevent the growth of al Qaeda. Most of them are outraged at the US occupation of Iraq and what it has done to strengthen Iran. Dubai is a great US ally, but look at how it got treated.

Papa_Bear:  People like Biff remind me that there is a substantial percentage of Americans who think that 9/11 was an inside job. Is it worth arguing with those people, or should they be ignored?

Richard_Clarke: There is a great book called "Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why conspiracy theories can't stand up to the facts" with a forward by John McCain. They should all be forced to read it.

patsfan70:  Mr Clarke, do you think our intelligence agencies can ever be reformed to work properly, or does the whole system need to be scrapped and started over again from the beginning ?

Richard_Clarke: Its tempting to start all over, but not realistic. We just need to push on making them work. That means having CIA actually infiltrate terrorist groups and do real spying. It means higher standards in analysis. It probably means paying people in these jobs better.

Menxit:  What do you know about Building 7 that fell on 9/11? Why did it fall even though it was not hit by a plane?

Richard_Clarke: I believe that Mayor Giuliani had located his Operation Center there and installed a large generator with a lot of fuel. The fuel ignited when pieces of debris caused a fire.

P-Dawg:  What about Musharraf in Pakistan? It's clear that Al Qaeda has safe haven at the border with Afghanistan. Yet we keep supporting Musharraf. Why?

Richard_Clarke: Because they can't figure out an alternative and are afraid of radical Islamists getting democratically elected. Yet there is only so much Musharraf will do to help us, and its not enough. he has created a sanctuary for al Qaeda by refusing to control the border provinces.

tommcdonough:  Closer to home question. So, in your new book, you gave an idea of a new Harvard campus in Allston. Particularly liked that you named a place Summers Hall? Do you think, around Harvard, Larry Summers will be better remembered in the future?

Richard_Clarke: Larry is a well meaning, very bright guy who loves Harvard. He obviously made some mistakes in dealing with constituencies on campus. Maybe he was not the best choice for what is really a political and fund raising job.

prof:  The problem with "conspiracy theories" is that there is so semblance of reality to them. Then add to it deliberate manipulations of fact/interpretation as the current administration is prone to, and who would not say there are larger conspiracies out there? I have wondered (for years now) do these guys believe what they are saying? or is it all manipulative?

Richard_Clarke: This administration has crossed the line into knowing manipulation...much more so than any I recall in the last 30 years. They don't believe all of their own rhetoric and lies.

mjh:  Do you believe that the authorities are too quick to pull out the "terrorism card", take for example what just happened in Boston. Civil liberties will eventually be eroded to the point where living in a democratic country will be living under opressive rule

Richard_Clarke: I think we can be strong against terrorism without eroding civil liberties, but its a difficult process that takes constant vigilance. This Administration doesn't worry about eroding civil liberties and has done a lot of damage by illegal wire taps, detaining Enemy combatants without legal rights, etc. It didn't have to be that way.

P-Dawg:  Why do people like Rick Santorum keep saying weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq? Where do they get this stuff from and is there any truth? How do you talk to people like this?

Richard_Clarke: They did find a few old, leaky, inoperable chemical weapon artillery rounds from the Iran-Iraq War...unusable and probably not even known to the Iraqi government. Santorum just further undermined his overall credibility by saying things like that...and it contributed to his landslide defeat.

agore:  Richard - what has President Bush done right? According to all of you liberals (yes - I classify you as one of them now), he has done NOTHING correct. what do you think?

Richard_Clarke: Bush invaded Afghanistan, belatedly but nonetheless he did. We needed to do that. Unfortunately, he then robbed resources from that effort for Iraq, with the result that Afghanistan is now in danger of coming under the control of the Taliban again.

agore:  do you think President Bush manipulated every intelligence agency in the world that said that Iraq had WMD's?

Richard_Clarke: No. I believed Iraq had WMD, some amount of chemical bombs, as did about 25 other countries. I just didn't think that posed a threat to us that deserved an invasion as a response. Bush took the facts given him by intelligence agencies and stretched them beyond recognition.

P-Dawg:  Putting Bush aside, what now for Iraq? Should we redouble our efforts--massive spending, many more troops--because we broke it, so we bought it? Or do we withdraw because we're just making it worse? Some combo of the two?

Richard_Clarke: We should withdraw major combat units over the next year. Major combat units do not help create security there, they stimulate the terrorist attacks. We should have a residual presence of Special Forces, intelligence units, etc. The result may well be a mess when we leave, but that will be true whenever we leave: next year or five years from now.

Fred:  In your opinion, what effect would a political solution in Israel/Palestine have on terrorism in the Middle East or elsewhere? Is there enough animus against Israel that Iranians or others would still support bombings, etc? thanks.

Richard_Clarke: Israel needs a peace agreement for its long term stability and therefore we should help them get one. It will not stop Iran or al Qaeda.

Richard_Clarke: Its been great chatting with you. Hope you enjoy BREAKPOINT.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES